#52ancestors (Wk2): Favourite Photo – Ellen Eliza Sawyer (or ‘Nana Coombes’)

Casting a spell for many a year, this photo of my great-grandmother Ellen Eliza Sawyer [b. 30 March, 1898 (Dogmersfield, Hants) – d. 1 March, 1953 (Guildford, Surrey)] has entranced three generations of my family – her son (my grandfather, Frank); her grand-daughter (my Mum, Mary) and yours truly.

Black and white head and shoulders photo of Ellen Eliza with her rather thick neck.
‘That’ photo of Ellen Eliza,

As a teenager almost forty years ago, I remember feeling as if I was being called to it, to stare directly into her eyes. At times, it was as if the photo, hanging on a wall in a painted glass frame was actually a mirror. I would stare at it intensely for minutes on end. To my surprise and delight, it would feel as if I was entering another dimension. First, the figure looking back at me would morph into my Mum’s face, then I would see myself. I was transfixed. This would happen regularly, and can still happen today. Easily my favourite photo of an ancestor.

Impatient to know

As years went by, the obsession deepened. Family testimony passed on over the years from my granddad Frank (her son), my grand aunt Norah (her daughter) and her niece Vera (my 1st cousin 2x removed) report a strong-willed character, impatient and who could be prone to a temper or two. Having known him well, this sounds just like her son too.

Physically, Ellen Eliza was an imposing figure, and I could see a great likeness to my granddad, to my Mum, and myself. There was something about the shape of her neck that particularly fazed me which may also have been at the centre of my fascination with her, and it is clear in this photo. When I was 27, I was diagnosed with a neurological condition called ‘Chiari Malformation.’

To put it simply, my brain would move in and out of the base of my skull, causing pressure on the brain by restricting movement of spinal fluid. The consultant diagnosed it by looking at shape of my neck, confirmed by MRI scan after years of misdiagnosis. Raging headaches, particularly when coughing, laughing or sneezing which would inevitably make the pressure build-up feel intense – just like Ellen might have felt all those years before, raging like a ‘red rag to a bull’ for whatever reason that was. I also had giddy turns when quickly standing up, and balance problems more generally. Did Ellen Eliza have the same thing all those years ago and it went undiagnosed, and possibly her son too? He would have giddy ‘turns’ when standing up after tinkering under cars, and obvious, pressure related headaches behind his eyes – both classic symptoms. I would love to know, and the photo suggests she certainly may have done.

Ellen’s early family life

Ellen Eliza was born in the small, delightfully named village of Dogmersfield, Hampshire. She was baptised on 30 March, 1898, most likely in All Saints’ Church, Dogmersfield.

In the 1901 Census, she is listed as living aged 3 years in the family home at Pilcot, Dogmersfield with her father Charles (a 34 year old carpenter from Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, Ireland) and her mother Kate (maiden name Watts, a 29 year old from nearby Odiham, Hampshire). More on each of them in a future week. They lived there together with siblings Charles (aged 7, actually called Walter), Alfred George (aged 5), and William John (just a few months old).

In the 1911 Census, Ellen Eliza (or ‘Nellie’ as she has become known) is still living in the parental family home as 13 year old, and listed as being at school. The home address is now 2 Chestnut Cottages, Fleet Road, just down the road in Crookham, Hampshire. Thomas (aged 8), Constance (aged 5) and Albert (aged 2) have been added to the list of siblings since the last census.

First marriage (Holland) and WWI

As documented in last week’s story, Ellen Eliza met a soldier called Charles William Holland who was stationed in Aldershot during WW1, and they were married on 26 June, 1916 at Christ Church, Crookham. She was 18 years old, he was 36. When he was not in service, they spent the early years of their marriage living with her parents and family.

Ellen Eliza and Charles William had four children before her husband was taken from her prematurely after just eight years of marriage. They were Charles William (1916-2002); George Henry (1920-1942); my granddad Frank Stephen Francis (1921-2014) and Ellen Beatrice May or ‘Nellie’ (1924-2002).

They were still living with Ellen Eliza’s parents in Fleet, Hampshire in the 1921 Census, but family testimony confirms that soon after, they finally had their own place in South Warnborough, Hampshire. It was here that her first husband died in late 1924.

Second marriage (Coombes) and WWII

Life must have been tough as a single mother bringing up four young children following the death of her first husband. Just over three years later, she married again, in the first few months of 1928 to Thomas Coombes. The 1939 Register suggests he was born on 7 March 1901, while his death certificate suggests 1905.

Together, they had a further four children. Thomas Frederick, or ‘Tommy’ (1928-2009); Norah (1932-2011); Dorothy, or ‘Dolly’ (1934-present) and Elizabeth, or ‘Margaret’ (1937-1999).

Black and white photo of Ellen Eliza Sawyer (known as 'Nana Coombes) on the left, accompanied by children of varying ages (baby, toddlers and older) posing for the camera on what looks like wasteland.
Ellen Eliza Sawyer or ‘Nana Coombes’ (left) with daughters likely incl. Nellie, Norah, Dolly & Margaret plus various other children.

The family started to move north across the district until they finally arrived in the town in which I live today, Yateley, Hampshire.

In the Doghouse

By the start of WWII, in the 1939 Register, Ellen (listed as having unpaid domestic duties) is living with her husband Thomas (an anti-aircraft soldier), and six records which have been redacted, at No. 20, Doghouse, which is off Pale Lane Elvetham, close to where the M3 motorway is today. Those redacted names are likely to be two children from her first marriage (my grandfather Frank, and ‘Nellie‘, plus half-siblings ‘Tommy’, Norah, ‘Dolly’, and ‘Margaret’. Family testimony has recorded that my own grandparents, Frank Holland, and his then girlfriend Joyce Hale may have done much of their initial ‘courting’ at this address too.

Ellen Eliza lost her second eldest son George Henry Holland in 1942 when his submarine HMS Unique was lost off the Spanish coast. We have a copy of the letter she received from the King informing her of his death.

After WWII, the family had made the short move across the A30 London Road, and were living in the ‘hutments’ or ‘nissen huts’ that had formerly been home to RAF officers who had been stationed at RAF Hartford Bridge (now Blackbushe Airport). They had been living on ‘Site 5’ (Hut 15, christened ‘Rosemary’), which was located on what is now Vigo Lane.

Black and white photo of one of the abandoned hutments or nissen huts lived in by Ellen Eliza. Posing in front of it is her daughter in law Joyce (my Nan), and Joyce's sister, Meg. The hut is semi-circular and appears to either have a wooden or corrugated iron front, two windows, a large central door with an air vent above. Pretty grim.
One of the abandoned ‘hutments’ or ‘nissen huts’ lived in by Ellen Eliza. Posing in front of this one is her daughter-in-law Joyce Hale (my Nan), and Joyce’s sister, Meg.

In 1949, when her son Frank married Joyce, his address was given as being in Sandy Lane, Church Crookham, while she also was living at Hut 15, ‘Site 5’, Yateley – the same hut lived in by Ellen when listed on her death certificate too.

By the mid 1950s, the ‘hutments’ were the subject of an official ‘slum clearance’ programme, to be the replaced by an estate called ‘Manor Park’ – part of all the new council housing programmes that were ‘popping up’ across the UK during this period. Ellen was to miss the benefits of all the ‘mod cons’ these were to provide, including hot running water.

She died on 1 March, 1953 in St. Luke’s Hospital, Guildford. She was almost 55 years old, and died from Uraemia and Chronic Nephritis (primarily kidney related) and Malignant Hypertension.

‘Nana Coombes’

Her second husband Thomas (who survived her), together with daughters Norah, ‘Dolly’ and ‘Margaret’ would live on Somerville Crescent, Yateley on the Manor Park estate – a few doors down from my Nan and Granddad (his stepson, Frank and his wife Joyce) and their family (my Mum Mary, plus her sisters Eileen and Brenda). She knew him as ‘Granddad Coombes’, and remembers fondly when he took her to Aldershot to buy the first single for her record collection as a teenager – You Were Made For Me by Freddie and the Dreamers! My Mum was born in the summer of 1952 so she didn’t get the chance to know her Nan, as Ellen died before my Mum was even a year old. Growing up with her two older sisters though, she always knew her as ‘Nana Coombes,’ and her memory remained a powerful presence in the family.

As a result, Ellen Eliza will always be known to me and the rest of my family as ‘Nana Coombes’, even though the Coombes name is not a blood line on my family tree. Some of her children stayed close-by in Yateley, others moved further afield, two as far afield as the USA (more in future weeks). One of my Mum’s cousins lives just three doors ‘up the street’; another follows this blog from the next village, while we have been lucky enough to track down a new batch last year in Chicago thanks to DNA – more on that to come in future weeks.

Others prove more elusive, despite the fact that we are lucky enough that one of Ellen’s daughters is still alive today. Her son Frank, my granddad, died in 2014. He could be a little on the cantankerous side. Some of his character, as I was told in family testimony was not unlike his Mum. It did not help however with fostering the best of relations with all of his siblings, which is part of the reason we have lost touch with many on the wider family tree. If I could go back in time and change anything that is close to within my power, it would be that. I am sure there are other reasons too. I’m sure there is still more work to be done.

A powerful matriarch, Ellen Eliza’s presence in the family tree holds together many different threads whether Holland, Coombes or Sawyer who otherwise have widely diverged. She is my favourite photo, and a much loved ancestor.

If you are able to shed any further light, please do not hesitate to get in touch, otherwise I will see you for next week’s #52ancestors post (Week 3).


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